Archive for October, 2009


On faffing about

October 30, 2009
DwarfStar 02 small

My little Mak sporting a big eyepiece and, more importantly, a 6x30 finder.

My good friend, fellow paleontologist and sometime astronomer Mike Taylor sent this a few weeks ago:

By the way, we had a very clear sky a few nights ago, so I got the telescope out and — after an AMAZING amount of faffing about — I saw Jupiter and four moons.  Pretty neat!

To which I replied:

Awesome! No worries on the faffing about. One of the things I need to blog about on 10MA is how long it can take to find something for the first time, and how much you feel like a tool while you’re bumbling around in the dark, but also how much easier things get over time. Part of it is learning to point–it takes me much less time to get the telescope aimed where I want it these days–and part of it is learning to see. There are things that I’ve looked for in the past two years with no success that I found pretty easily this summer, just because I’ve been out looking and gotten my expectations in line with reality.

So, if you’re new or relatively new to this and you are frustrated because it’s hard to find stuff and most stuff is too dim and occasionally you spend half an hour or more just trying to find one stinking thing and still fail, take heart. I’ve been there. A lot. I still end up there occasionally–just last night, in fact. I think every astronomer has been there. It will get better.

What helps?

  • Aperture, for one. As much as I like my small scopes, there’s just no arguing with physics: bigger glass gathers more photon, makes things brighter and therefore easier to recognize.
  • Field of view is good, too. I’ve found some things this fall with my 15×70 binoculars that I never found in my 6″ reflector just because I had a nice big field in which to recognize them. A good low-power eyepiece for a telescope is indispensable.
  • For a telescope, a good finder is very helpful. I upgraded my 6″ scope with a 9×50 RACI (right angle correct image) finder and put its 6×30 RACI finder on my little Mak, and both scopes have benefited tremendously.
  • For anything, a steady mount to put it on so you’re not contending with the shakes. This is not a trivial consideration. For the first year that I owned the little Mak I had it on a cheap camera tripod, and I hated it. Never used it. Seriously. Then I got a nice tripod and a solid, smoothly-moving head and almost overnight that scope went from being my most hated to my most favorite. There is a saying in amateur astronomy that the mount is half the telescope. I think it might even be a little more than half. I’d rather use a merely average scope on a solid mount than a world-class instrument on a shaky mount.

All these things are good. They’re fixable, and you can fix them without breaking the bank. But they’re not really what this post is about. There are people with thousands invested in their equipment who still can’t find anything in the sky, and other folks with homemade scopes cobbled together from odds and ends that can line ’em up and shoot ’em down on the deep sky. The difference is experience, and that comes with time, and only with time.

So how do I find things, in terms of actual step-by-step instructions that you can use?

  1. I start with a map. It might be one of the monthly sky maps in Sky & Telescope or Astronomy, or a planisphere, or a star atlas.
  2. Using the naked eye, I orient the map to the bright stars in the sky and get an idea of roughly where I need to point the telescope.
  3. Usually I don’t try to point the telescope at the object of interest immediately. Instead I start on a nearby bright star so I can get my bearings, and then star hop to my target.
  4. If I’m having a hard time finding the star I want, I pull out some regular binoculars and do a quick scan around the sky. Binoculars are the perfect intermediate between the naked eye and the telescope, even if the telescope has a good finder. My friend with the 16″ telescope uses tripod-mounted binoculars as a kind of superfinder, which goes to show that the longer you do this, the more useful you’re likely to find your binoculars.
  5. Once I know where I want to point the telescope, I crouch behind it or lean over and sight down the tube. Even on the little Mak this is a helpful step.
  6. Hopefully that will put my starting star in the field of the finderscope. Sometimes I end up faffing about even at this stage! Once I’ve got my quarry, I move the scope so that the object is centered in the finderscope.
  7. Hopefully that will put my starting star near the center of the field of the telescope, using whichever eyepiece yields the lowest magnification and the widest field. If it doesn’t, the alignment of the finder needs to be adjusted. A good target for this is Polaris, because unlike the other stars in the sky, it doesn’t move noticeably as the Earth turns.
  8. Using the finderscope and the low-power eyepiece, I star hop to the object of interest. This step is not necessary for bright objects like the moon, bright planets, some double stars, and the brighter deep sky objects, but for everything else–most nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies–it’s crucial. Star hopping involves recognizing simple patterns of stars, like lines, basic shapes, and so on, that will guide you from your starting point to the object of interest. The first time you do any given hop, it’s imperative to have the map in your lap or sitting on a chair or table right next to the scope. More on star-hopping in a future post, but at its heart it’s really just doing this repeatedly.
  9. Once I’ve found the object of interest with the low-power eyepiece, I center it in the field of view and swap out that eyepiece for something yielding more magnification. The optimum magnification for any given object will vary depending on the condition of the sky–how much skyglow from the setting or rising sun, the moon, light pollution; the quality of the seeing (atmospheric turbulence). Frequently I push the magnification until the image starts looking ugly and then back down a step or two. Many objects, especially open clusters, look better at relatively low magnifications. But now we’re off of finding and on to observing, about which much more later.

So if you’re having trouble getting your targets in the eyepiece, don’t give up hope, and don’t give up observing. There’s no shame in taking a break after a failed search and treating yourself to something pretty and easy, like Jupiter or one of your favorite DSOs. I did so just last night.

Don’t forget to step away from the instrument from time to time, lean back, and try to absorb it all with the ole Mark 1 eyeball. Your nose may be bloody but you’re in the game. You’re out under the stars, and you’re finding your way around the universe. There’s a lot of it to learn. Give it time.


Fly, baby, fly!

October 28, 2009

397587main_launch 3-m_1024-768

The Ares 1-X flew, successfully. Pix and video here.

I’m extremely troubled that after pouring literally hundreds of billions of dollars into the financial bailout last year and more hundreds of billions into the stimulus package this year, some idiots still talk about how much money we’re wasting on manned spaceflight. Here’s the answer: 3-4 billion a year. Not 34, 3 to 4. With projected increases to 7 or 8 to get the Constellation program up and running.

Is 3 or 4 billion dollars a lot of money? Well, it sounds like a lot. But this is a country that spends a billion a year on chewing gum. That is coldly contemplating bailing out GMAC to the tune of 3 to 5 billion–for the third time in a year. You know what you can buy with the manned space program budget? Two stealth bombers.

So no. Just no. Manned spaceflight done the NASA way is probably a lot more expensive than it has to be. But compared to the budgets of, well, anything, on a national scale, it’s a pittance. And even that pittance has been steadily eroded by the last three administrations.

I’m not 100% on board with the Constellation program. I fear that it will keep thousands of former shuttle program people  employed at the expense of not getting us beyond low Earth orbit for another three decades. I think the competing DIRECT proposal has a lot going for it. But for now, today, Ares 1-X is what we got. And whether I agree with everything they’re doing or not, NASA needed a win.

And it got one.



Astronomy Quote #1

October 28, 2009
crab nebula

M1, the Crab Nebula, the remnant of a star that exploded almost 1000 years ago. The heavy elements in the universe--including the ones in our bodies--were created and dispersed by exploding stars.

I know that the molecules in my body are traceable to phenomena in the cosmos. That makes me want to grab people in the street and say, “Have you heard this!?”
– Neil DeGrasse Tyson


Photo from APOD.


Moon and moon rocket

October 26, 2009

2009-10-26 moon and Jupiter 009

The solar system is a big disk, and most everything in it orbits in or nearly in the same plane, called the ecliptic. Projected on the sky, the ecliptic forms the track along which the sun, moon, and planets all appear to move. One nice consequence of this is that we get pretty alignments of the moon and planets fairly regularly. The moon has to pass each of the planets every month, but the passings happen in the daytime about half the time (as you’d expect), and sometimes after the moon rises or sets from a particular spot. Still, these conjunctions come along several times a year and they’re always worth watching for.

Right now as I type the moon is getting close to Jupiter; the two are separated by only about three degrees. Unfortunately, the moon is also getting close to the horizon, and the closest approach of the two bodies as seen from Earth will be visible to some lucky folks about halfway around the planet, I reckon. Still, I got out this evening with my Astroscan (about which more later) and digital camera and took a stab at capturing the event in pixels. Moon and Jupiter at top, moon by itself right here.

2009-10-26 moon and Jupiter 018Tip o’ the hat to Doug at Revolving Rock for reminding me about the conjunction!

In other news, the folks at NASA finally got a photo up showing Atlantis on pad 39A with Ares 1-X on pad 39B. If the weather is good, Ares 1-x will be blasting off in just a few hours. Between the possible weather and NASA being, well, NASA, there will probably be a delay or two, so keep an eye on NASA’s Ares 1-X page this morning.

389937main_2009-5728Finally, this 360-degree panorama of the Ares 1-X in Highbay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building may take a while to load, but it is definitely worth the wait. If you ever wondered what it would be like to stand in a 500-foot-tall room in front of a 327-foot-tall rocket, here’s your chance to find out.

And yes, I know that the Ares 1-X is not a moon rocket in the sense of a vehicle that will actually send people to the moon. But Ares 1 will be part of the system that does…hopefully.

I want to go there. Don’t you?


Galilean Nights!

October 23, 2009

Yarf! How’d I miss this one?

As part of IYA 2009, last spring astronomers around the world, both amateur and professional, hosted a weekend of stargazing called 100 Hours of Astronomy. The first two nights were clouded out for me, and I knew I’d be out of town for the fourth, but the third cleared up nicely. So I took my little telescope downtown, set it up in the public square, and ended up showing the first quarter moon to 144 passersby. That was my first experiment with the time-honored tradition of sidewalk astronomy: setting up a telescope in a public place to show the wonders of the heavens to whoever happens by–for free.

Since then I’ve tried to get downtown with the scope once or twice a month. Most people are happy to take a look and even happier once they have. A lot of folks tell me that it’s their first time looking through a telescope, and usually at least one or two people tell me that it was the highlight of their evening.

So it’s completely ridonkulous that I haven’t blogged yet about Galilean Nights, which is going on right now. The 100 Hours of Astronomy event was so successful that the organizers of IYA 2009 decided to do it again. Starting yesterday and running through tomorrow (Saturday) night, amateurs and pros everywhere are hitting the streets and the web with the goal of getting as many people as possible to do something very simple: look through a telescope. The moon is waxing, Jupiter is riding high in the southern sky, and if the weather doesn’t cooperate there are opportunities to do some remote observing.

Having somehow forgotten about the big show, I took my scope downtown last night anyway, just because that’s what I do at this point in the lunar cycle. Weeknights are kinda slow and in the space of an hour I only saw 22 people. I was back out tonight, and got 79 visitors. But it’s not about numbers, it’s about connecting with people and connecting people with the sky, and I had a grand time both nights. Sometimes the slow nights are best, you get more time to chat with folks. Not everyone wants to look, and that’s okay. But those that do–kids, grandparents, teenagers, whoever–everyone is moved by the sight of the moon and planets.

So here’s a sort of meta-mission assignment for you: if you have seen the moon or Jupiter (or whatever looks nice when you find this, my visitors-from-the-future) through your binoculars or telescope, share. Maybe you have a child or significant other that has never braved the cold and dark to stargaze. Maybe there’s a kid across the street or an elderly neighbor down the road that has never looked through a telescope. Maybe you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with a safe public place nearby. Doesn’t matter if your telescope is fully tricked out or fully humble, or if you don’t know exactly how far away Jupiter is. Sidewalk astronomy isn’t about giving people all the answers–it’s about giving them access, to something that belongs to all of us, but that they might never have seen before.

My first night out with the scope, I was nervous and fumbling and could hardly bring myself to ask the first person walking by, “Would you like to see the moon?” The guy stopped and looked, and what he said wasn’t printable (this is a family establishment; use your imagination), but it was gratifying. And I was off and running.

Go have fun!


Here’s something weird

October 21, 2009

Apparently Sirius, hands down the brightest star in the sky, was blood red in antiquity but blazes blue-white today, just 1500 years later. The evidence is compelling. The problem is, no known astrophysical process can account for the change. Read all about it here, and go here for more discussion.

By the way, I love it when stuff like this comes along. It doesn’t mean that science is wrong or that science doesn’t work. It means that there is plenty of stuff that we haven’t figured out, and some of it is, like, huge. As someone who loves figuring stuff out, I take a lot of comfort from that. I want some of that pie for myself. But in this area, at least, I can also get some satisfaction just from looking at other people’s plates.

How wonderful that we have met with a paradox.  Now we have some hope of making progress.  ~Niels Bohr


In lieu of an actual post…

October 20, 2009


…here are some pretty pictures.

First batch: the Ares 1-X test vehicle rolled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building and down to the pad. If all goes well, it will be lifting off in about a week. This is the first launch in the Constellation program which is slated to replace the shuttle. In what should make a iconic transitional image, Ares 1-X is on Launch Pad 39B at the Cape while Atlantis is on Pad 39A, awaiting its Nov. 16 launch to the International Space Station.

I haven’t found any photos so far that show both pads, just lots of photos of the Ares 1-X.


It’s tall. Like 310 327 feet tall. For reference, the Space Shuttle stack (bottom of booster rocket to top of external tank) is only 184 feet tall. The only taller vehicle ever flown successfully is the Saturn V (363 ft), and the last one of those took off in 1973 to launch Skylab.* **


* Real boffins will tell you that the thing that launched Skylab was not a Saturn V but the one and only Saturn INT-21, but c’mon, it’s clearly a Saturn V with Skylab on top.

** Successfully is the operative term. Russia launched several of their N1 moon rockets (345 ft) between 1969 and 1972, but they all blew up. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian leaders denied even having a moon program. [I realized later that it’s a bit snarky to point this out before any Ares rockets have flown at all. Fingers firmly crossed!]

Anyway, check out the cool pictures and keep your fingers crossed next week.


Second batch: apparently Saturn is pretty, or something. Definitely pretty cool.

One more week of teaching. Keep soakin’ up them photons.


Observing Report: LCROSS impact watch

October 13, 2009

Well, as you may have heard, the LCROSS impacts were successful in that both the Centaur upper stage and the LCROSS probe itself both hit the crater Cabeus at crazy high velocity. No one knows yet whether they were successful at detecting water–it will take some time to pore over the data from the mission to figure that out. And visually they were a complete dud. No flash, no mini-mushroom cloud, no plume of debris extending up into space.

For me, the impact watch was anticlimactic, but in the best sense; given how much fun I had last Thursday night, the impact probably would have been an anticlimax even if we had seen a debris plume.

For one thing, we were in a dark spot. I live about a mile from the eastern edge of LA county, which means that I am out of the worst of the LA light dome but still in a metropolitan area. The light pollution is not impossible but it’s easy to show people the constellations because usually the dark stars are the only ones showing. I’ve never seen the Milky Way from my driveway, and I doubt I ever will (barring a massive blackout, which I secretly wouldn’t mind so much).

Fortunately it’s easy to get to better skies. There are mountains to the north and east and deserts across the mountains, and you can get to really seriously dark skies in an hour or two. Acceptably dark skies are even closer–we went up Mount Baldy, which is the closest big peak and only about 20 miles from the house. With a little elevation to put us above the smog and a nice ring of mountains to block out most of the local light pollution, the sky is amazing. We still had the big LA light dome off to the southwest, but that really only knocked out about an eighth of the sky for serious observing, and the rest was just grand. The Milky Way was obvious, and I spotted the Andromeda galaxy with the naked eye for the first time in my life.

We also had just the right equipment. My friend brought along his 16-inch dob. Now, you know that I am a small scope afficionado, but even I got aperture fever around that thing. Tough objects looked good and average objects looked amazing. I have heard people claim that M11, the Wild Duck cluster, is their favorite deep sky object, but I never understood why–until now. It’s a cliche to describe a nice cluster as looking like a handful of diamonds scattered on black velvet. In the 16-inch dob, M11 looked like an armored car full of diamonds blew up over an oil spill. We had a look at the Cat’s Eye Nebula, and while it didn’t look as good as it did in the 60-inch at Mt. Wilson, it still looked awfully nice.  The spiral structure was obvious, it was a gorgeous flourescent green, and the central star was blazing.

I also took along my 15×70 binoculars. These are fairly recent acquisition. I had lusted after a pair for more than a year after seeing the excellent reviews on Amazon, and my night of binocular stargazing in Utah finally pushed me over the edge. I’m thrilled with them–the 70mm objectives each grab as much light as a small telescope, and they’re just so darn trivial to use. If I’m having company over I usually mount them so I can give people a rock-steady view, but on my own I free-hand them as often as not. They’re quite a bit heavier than my 10x50s, but the extra weight is more than worth it. The other night I laid out on the hood of the car and did a head-to-head comparison, and I think my 10x50s are going to be pretty lonely from now on. The 15x70s hit the sweet spot between magnification and field of view–I can see things well enough to feel that I’m really experiencing them and not just noting them, but the FOV is expansive enough that it easy to find my way around the sky. So far, they are my favorite tool for finding objects and just generally learning the sky.

And that’s just here in town. Out on the mountain, the 15x70s were spectacular. I saw the Double Cluster better than I ever have in any instrument, ever. Andromeda was awesome. I was sweeping up globular clusters left and right. I even bagged the Triangulum galaxy, which I’d never found before; it is a huge object with a very low surface brightness, so ideally you want dark skies (check) and an instrument with a wide enough FOV to separate it out from the background sky (double check).

Now, it may seem crazy that I am gushing about a 16-inch dob one minute and a pair of binoculars the next. But they’re for different and complementary modes of stargazing. The big scope will show incredible detail on objects–globular clusters like M22 showed so many stars that I felt like I needed to look several times to see them all. But it’s still a telescope; you don’t just pick it up and scan the sky until you find something interesting. Binoculars will let you do just that. I probably observed about three dozen different celestial objects with the binoculars the other night. With my sky atlas spread out on the hood of the truck, a red flashlight*, and the 15x70s, I could look ’em up, hunt ’em down, and take ’em in not much longer than it takes to write. On the flip side, most of those three dozen things, pretty as they were, were still just fuzzy blobs in the binoculars. It takes the light-gathering and magnifying abilities of a telescope to really bring out the best in most objects–hence the dob. If you ask me (or lots of other folks), that’s the yin and yang of optimal observing: binoculars for widefield scanning and locating objects, and a telescope for drinking in the details. Not on separate nights but at the same time, going back and forth to whichever tool best suits the job or your mood.

* For preserving night vision. You can buy custom jobs, but the traditional method is to get a compact flashlight (I have a mini-Maglite) and paint over the window with red nail polish. Cheap, easy, durable, reversible.

We got done setting up about 8:30 and observed pretty hard for about four hours. In the early morning we slowed down, spent more time jawing, and even hopped in the cab of the truck for a couple of hours to stay warm. Back out at 4:00 AM  to get set for the 4:31 impact, and we kept on observing until about 5:00 before packing it all up and coming home. As observing runs go, it was my own Apollo 13–I got everything I wanted except the moon.

I’m a week and a half away from being done with teaching for the fall. That means more nights on the mountain, and more regular updates here. Stay tuned!


Commence strategic bombing of the moon!

October 6, 2009

moon impact

Friday morning at 4:30 AM Pacific time, NASA is going to slam the Centaur upper stage of a big rocket into the moon at something like four miles per second. At that speed, I could get back to where I grew up, in Oklahoma, in less than four minutes. The reason NASA is bombing the moon is to see if there might be water ice in one of the permanently shadowed craters at the lunar south pole–potential prime real estate for future manned missions. Following a bit behind the rocket stage is the LCROSS (Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite) probe, which will search for signs of water as it flies through the debris plume. LCROSS is also going to send us pretty pictures before it slams into the moon just four minutes later.

Big telescopes across the planet will be watching, and lots of little ones as well. The debris plume is expected to be about 6 miles tall, which means it should be visible in telescopes 10-12 inches in diameter or larger. I don’t have a scope that big, but I have a friend with a 16-inch Dob and I’m off work Friday, so we’re going to put in a full night of observing and cap it with an impact watch.

It’s worth pointing out that the Centaur is going to hit the moon with considerably more kinetic energy than anything manmade has before. Nobody really knows for sure how this is going to shake out–not just the water part, but the debris plume itself. There may be folks with 12-inch (or even 16 inch!) scopes who see nothing, or on the flip side it might be visible to smaller instruments (you know, the kind I’m usually yakking about). So it’s probably worth getting up for if it will be visible from your location (sorry, Europe and Eastern seaboard). If not, NASA TV will have live and streaming coverage.

NASA has a pretty great page about the mission here, with loads of info that you’ll probably find useful whether you plan to observe the impact from your backyard or your sofa.

Take that, Luna!


Two worth watching

October 5, 2009

Hey folks, thanks for your patience. Missions will resume shortly. In the meantime, here are a couple of astronomy music videos. The first is from Brian Engh, who, when he drops some science on you, drops actual science.

If you liked that, get on over to and get your face rocked off, especially by his crocodilian gangsta rap and Thundering Earth Beast Technique.

Our second installment pays homage to Carl Sagan and the monumental Cosmos series. Featuring Stephen Hawking. Much cooler than you are probably expecting based on that description.